Tembo the Badass Elephant

Tembo the Badass Elephant

Tembo the Badass Elephant was originally conceived of as an endless runner, and that isn't much of a surprise when you consider the parts of the game that really pop. It's that excellent feeling of following the exact path that the developers planned for you to go on, hitting the power ups, going real fast, a small endorphin rush as you hit the jump pads, get the peanuts, watch the elephant smash into the enemies and beat them apart with his badass pachyderm might. Those are the parts that pop, the parts they so smartly lead with, that make you go "Yes, I DO need to play another level."

At its best the game most resembles something like Harmoknight or Bit.Trip Runner, a game in which you are matching the rhythm of the level to power through, finish as fast as possible, enjoying the way the sound effects ramp up as you do more and more.

In fact, the very first moment of the game shows you that they GET it. They know what they've made and what makes it amazing: you walk over, there's a destructible floor, and you do what you've been taught to do through countless games and platformers of this ilk: you butt slam. The camera pulls back as you slam further and further down, innumerable stories speeding up as you fall, breaking through them, smashing your way down to BAM the bottom floor, and you get going, and it's perfect. I don't mince words here: it is PERFECT. It then continues onto a level based around keeping your momentum, rescuing hostages, slamming, destroying, and pounding through all the weak enemies in a level on your way to victory.

It's flow, that oft-discussed concept about games and how the combination of your inputs, the game's challenges, the level design all come together to be a single entity of what feels like you're just the best person in the world at the game. And you feel like the developers over at Game Freak are geniuses for creating a game specifically about this feeling.

And then it stops.

There comes a point in Tembo where what had originally felt like excellent controls suddenly become a detriment. Your attempt to just jump in a straight line suddenly turns into a frustrating mix of annoying retries coupled with the pain of the inexactness of analog sticks, and a window too wide for when you slam. And you find yourself slamming right into a burning wall of instant death. The game suddenly doesn't read your slam as able to destroy the pieces on the ground below you. It becomes an odd point where the game is an auto-scroller, only where to keep the minimum speed to survive and not be killed, you have to always be running faster than your maximum speed.

Oh, no, you read that right, you must be going faster than you can actually go. Which is why a chunk of the level is set on moving platforms that up that speed, but then it thinks it's providing a fun challenge by making it so you have to hit everything perfectly... or die.

So Tembo tries to be two things.

It first tries to be a game that rewards you for following the path. It's like the musical levels from Rayman Legends, like the endless runners mentioned above. But it also tries to be a platformer that rewards perfection without that special guide of a rhythm or a breadcrumb trail that leads you perfectly. These aren't mutually exclusive, but in a weird way, Tembo makes them feel like they are. The parts that reward you following those paths also allow for you to leave the beaten path and explore for puzzle rooms and hostages. They give you a great feeling for perfection, sure, but don't just immediately kill you otherwise, where the other parts, if you mess up, death. A long image of Tembo, looking burned out and tired, eating peanut butter to perk himself up.

When you die in N+, your body bounces around, but you immediately restart as soon as you press a button. In Super Meat Boy and Dustforce, your respawn is quick because the game knows you'll die so many times that anything longer than a second isn't worth doing. But Tembo isn't a game built like that because the insta-die-upon-mistake areas are far between, but that makes them even more annoying. The rest of the game isn't so bad, so this animation is cute and rare, akin to opening the can of worms in Earthworm Jim, but when you get to these parts that are so difficult, all it gives you is even more frustration as you pound the button to get through.

All this makes Tembo a fine game where the really bad, really rough parts are REALLY bad and REALLY rough, in a way that brings the rest of the game down. The boss fights are fine and pattern-based, the levels are fun and feel great to breeze through, but when the game decides ok, now you're just gonna die a bunch? Everything drags down. As with all games based on momentum and constantly pushing forward, stopping is death. And when the game comes to that same full halt, guess what dies then.